The Worth-reading because it’s important to understand what led to the American Civil War

This is my review of The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton by Jane Smiley.

Despite caring little about the issue of slavery which is propelling 1850s America ever closer to civil war Lidie Harkness agrees to marry the thoughtful but arguably naïve New Englander, Thomas Newton, a committed “abolitionist”. A book-loving tomboy, who likes to ride a horse bareback, and once swam the treacherous Mississippi for the sheer challenge, she is lured by the adventure of becoming a settler’s wife, developing a “claim” on the “free soil”of the falsely promoted Kansas Territory. All too soon she experiences not only the harsh reality of life on the prairies, particularly in the freezing winter, but also the vicious hostility of the perhaps somewhat stereotyped residents of adjoining Missouri, unwilling to accept a democractically elected slave-free state, convinced that this will destroy the economic and social order.

Perhaps inspired by the divisions in her own family tree, with a grandfather’s branch Southern sympathisers, but her grandmother’s progressive abolitionists, Jane Smiley has researched in depth the fascinating question of whether or not to permit slavery in the newly established states as pioneers pushed further westwards. As a result, the book sometimes reads like a condensed history shoehorned into a novel. I was frustrated by the fact this is often hard to follow, without the disruption of breaking off to check the details elsewhere. It could be argued that, since the narrative is so strongly based on Lidie Newton’s viewpoint, her limited and confused understanding of events is realistic. Instead, she writes with much more precision and insight about filling in the chinks in her cabin walls or forming a relationship with the rashly purchased horse Jeremiah.

Jane Smiley clearly prefers writing in-depth about the complexity and contradictions of relations between individuals and the details of daily life. Although one cannot know how authentic this is, she has managed to sustain what reads like the “voice” of a young nineteenth century American woman – inexperienced and inevitably limited by her upbringing but perceptive and resilient, with a wry humour.

At first, I wondered why this book is not as widely known and praised as Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres” but although it is a page turner in parts, I soon found it weighed down with tedious wordiness, a long list of examples when two or three would do, the same point made several different ways, repetition of words. In short, Lidie’s thoughts and the lengthy disquitisions of some characters could do with a good edt. Yet perhaps the author seeks to emulate the styles of C19 authors she admires, like Dickens, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope. This seems borne out by the way every chapter starts with a quotation from Lidie’s “bible”, “A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home” by Catherine Beecher Stowe, while every chapter and even page is titled with a brief indication of what is happening.

Having gritted my teeth to endure the style, I was absorbed by much of this book, and it certainly created an interest in learning more about American history in the run-up to the Civil War. However, in addition to being over-long and in need of more rigorous editing, it hinges on some unnecessarily implausible plot developments, and its ending seems unsatisfactory, too abrupt (after all the verbiage) and weak.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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